When Roblin Boxill made the career jump from lawyer to charter school founder seven years ago, she had little knowledge of buildings and maintenance.
Now she can look at ceiling tile and detect asbestos. She can accurately estimate square footage in a potential classroom. And she knows that if a building doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system, it’s not worth her time.
As CEO of Freedom Preparatory Academy, Boxill is like many Memphis charter leaders who deal with the daily challenges of finding facilities and operating new schools in typically aging buildings.
Of the 45 charters authorized by Shelby County Schools, eight are housed in school buildings that have been closed by the district; six lease space and two bought the buildings. The remaining charter schools are housed in commercial buildings.
Next year, thanks to last week’s school board vote, the local district’s charter sector will grow by seven more schools, whose operators must secure their own facilities.
Freedom Prep operates one Memphis charter under the state-run Achievement School District and three under Shelby County Schools, including an elementary school that opened this month in South Memphis.
Finding potential school buildings that are also affordable has been one of Freedom Prep’s biggest challenges as an operator.
When a charter opens in a building owned by Shelby County Schools, the charter pays for rent and regular maintenance. If authorized by the state-run Achievement School District, the charter operator is responsible for utilities and repair, but not rent.
Freedom Prep has been paying $178,060 annually to Shelby County Schools, plus utilities and maintenance, to house its high school at the former Lakeview Elementary School. But it’s now seeking to buy the building and its 15 acres outright for $735,000. The proposed purchase is to be considered Tuesday night by Shelby County’s school board.
The operator’s new elementary school launched inside of the Mt. Pisgah Family Ministry Complex in South Memphis, which also houses Freedom Prep’s offices. For that space, Freedom Prep pays $81,000 per year, plus utilities.
The school now has about 120 kindergarteners and first-graders, and Boxill expects the budding elementary school to run out of room by next school year, necessitating a move. But she’s not sure where. Buildings that are well suited for a school often come at a high rental price that “basically takes it out of the classroom,” she said.
“(Real estate) is not the business that we’re in,” she said. “Starting a charter school is like starting a startup business, and always from scratch.”
Since charters in commercial spaces are not eligible for money from bonds, other funding for facility improvement comes from conventional loans, investment funds and charter support organizations.
Facilities are just one of the challenges being examined by Shelby County Schools’ new 27-member charter compact committee, of which Boxill is a member. The panel was created earlier this year to look at issues that come up between the district and its growing charter sector. But Boxill said the higher priority for the committee at this point is clarifying academic performance standards following the school board’s decision last spring to revoke four charters over performance issues.